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Firefox OS hits the stage at Mobile World Congress

It’s fair to say that last year’s announcement of the Firefox OS concept received a luke-warm reception from the industry at large. It was seen as another telco long shot: not so much to claw back some market power as had been tried with the doomed WAC (Wholesale Applications Community) but to make the whole native apps ecosystem thing go away in the long run.

The analysis behind the move was and is, that Apple and Google had wrested control of the smartphone away from the carriers by owning the smartphone OS. A powerful and more open HTML5 OS and ecosystem wouldn’t automatically give greater visibility to the telco, but it would make the native app (and therefore native OS) less dominant and give telcos - and many other categories of player - a more even playing field that could see market power distributed more equitably (from a telco point of view).

Great idea, but would the world’s telcos rally round, overcome their differences and support the concept? Would handset vendors come to the party? Even if they did, many observers thought the approach unlikely to succeed anyway - HTML5, they thought, was great in theory but app developers weren’t keen, the technology approach had its own drawbacks and the native OS was just so well entrenched. In addition, although device costs should, in theory, be lower due to the Web phone requiring less on-board memory and processor power and it being open and standard (less patents), the huge scale advantages of Android in particular would mean that low-cost Android smartphones would likely be priced at well below $100 in the medium term, closing the window of opportunity.

With Microsoft adding another powerful native OS to the pack, it looked unlikely that a Web-only smartphone OS aimed at low-end markets would attract a lot of support.

But now, with both Microsoft/Nokia and Blackberry stalled in the market (both budding third ecosystems have low 1 digit market shares) and a huge clamour from supporting telcos at this year’s event, its prospects appear changed.

Last night Mozilla (the not for profit behind the Firefox browser brand) showcased an impressive level of support from the telecoms industry, revealed the first Firefox OS build and outlined its roll-out plans.

The first wave of devices, it claims, will be rolled out in (alphabetical order) Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela. A slew of big operators have indicated support, including China Unicom, DT, KDDI, Korea Telecom, Telecom Italia and Telefonica.

The OS will launch will be accompanied by a Firefox marketplace already stocked with an impressive array of critical apps (Twitter, Facebook, Box etc).

One advantage for Firefox web apps will be what Mozilla is calling ‘one time use’. Essentially users will get used to the concept of downloading for instant use and of the apps (and paid-for apps) being ‘tied’ to online identity rather than specific device so able to be shred across devices.

So when do first devices hit the market? The earliest telco date given was 2013 by America Movil, all the others were more cagey, so 2014 or later is probably the time-scale to hold onto.

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